Lying with Photographs: An Analytical Framework
Lies are ever-present in human affairs, a tidal flow that rises and falls. Recently, lies have been at flood stage and photographs are central to the surge.
Statements, strings of words, are readily seen as assertions, claims. Photographs, on the other hand, are presumed to be a form of evidence. In Susan Sontag’s phrase, we assume photographs are “directly stenciled off the real.” Consequently, photographs, even dubious ones, carry credence in a way that words do not. Moreover, writes theorist Lev Manovich, “the reason we think that computer graphics technology has succeeded in faking reality is that we, over the course of the last hundred and fifty years, have come to accept the image of photography and film as reality.” For these main reasons and scores of lesser ones, photographs are ideal vehicles for lies.
We have entered what may be the golden age of lying, and photographs are a key tool. Therefore, and with some urgency, this project undertakes a detailed dissection of the methods and modes of photographic lying. Our analytic framework has the same goals as any scientific taxonomy: analysis, understanding, even liberation.
Our taxonomy consists of seven groups of photographic lies. They are: Manipulated, Manufactured, Recontextualized, Timeshifted, Extracted, Mirrored, and Denied. We offer a short description of each and illustrate each of the seven categories with “type specimens.” Paradoxically, we seek truths about lying.
Photographs can be self-contained lies or they can buttress larger structures of deceit. Ultimately and dangerously, people assemble them to create fully-formed alternate realities. We become little gods of separate worlds. This is lonely and dangerous, socially corrosive and increasingly common. It also dovetails nicely with a national epidemic of selfishness.
Not much is required for photographs to deceive—liars willing to lie and people eager to believe them. Both seem in ample supply. The internet swarms with hustlers and every hustler has his mark. Additionally, images are restless. The internet untethers photos from the facts of their origin and supercharges image delivery with near-instantaneous global reach and echo chamber amplification.
In our time, a photographic lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is still rebooting its server. “On the internet,” comments photohistorian Susie Linfield, “all photographs are equal: including doctored, manipulated, or constructed photographs, and those without any meaningful—or with entirely false— contexts.” All the world is a screen and lies feel like its future. The problematic end point is not just an ecosystem of lies but a populace accustomed to the constant release of ever-evolving lies. The result: a fog of deception dense enough to blur vision itself. Our culture claims to see everything but sees nothing at all with certainty or trust.
UCR ARTS: California Museum of Photography is the photography museum of the University of California. Founded in 1973, the museum creates exhibitions concerned with the intersection of photography, new imaging, and society. With more than 500,000 objects, it holds one of the major photography collections in the United States. The museum serves a diverse California, U.S. and international audience with research, exhibitions, education, performance, programming, and publications.Learn more about UCR ARTS at ucrarts.ucr.edu